20 No. 1 — Jan/Feb 2006
Libraries Lead the Way for Voter Registration Services
By Judy Hoffman
Thanks to the magic of the Internet and a vibrant
spirit of networking and collaboration, on Saturday,
Sept. 11, 2004, more than 80 Illinois libraries
joined together to “Honor Septem-ber 11:
Register to Vote @ your library.” By the
end of the day, close to 2,400 people had registered
to vote at these libraries.
This voter registration project was initiated
by the North Suburban Library System (NSLS) in
Wheeling, Ill. NSLS is a state-funded coordinating
agency for 650 academic, public, school, and
special libraries in the north and northwest
suburbs of Chicago. It serves libraries over
960 square miles, covering 83 communities and
nearly 1.9 million library patrons. After this
project was completed, it received special recognition
from the office of the Cook County Clerk and
a 2005 John Cotton Dana Public Relations Award.
In the John Cotton Dana citation we were commended
for “outstanding positioning of libraries
as centers of critical community services.” This
view of the project was very exciting to
the participants because it validated our ongoing
efforts to expand the work and perception
of our libraries as community centers. Here’s
how we did it.
An Idea that Sparked Action
NSLS member libraries have a long history of
networking and learning from each other. NSLS
has close to 40 networking groups that connect
individuals with the same jobs or interests,
and one of the longest-running (at more than
15 years old) is the public relations networking
group. As NSLS’s marketing communications
specialist, I’m a member of this group.
We meet three or four times a year, and between
meetings share information on an NSLS e-mail
list. This is our local edition of the American
Library Association’s national PRTalk,
to which most also belong. The NSLS list supports
timely local resource sharing, and helps gather
information quickly for press calls.
At a February 2004 meeting of the PR networking
group, someone asked what the other libraries
were planning to do to commemorate 9/11. The
librarians were in agreement that their communities
still wanted to acknowledge and reflect on 9/11.
No plans surfaced at the meeting, but the members
promised to share any ideas they might have afterward
on the NSLS PR e-mail list.
A couple of days after the PR group met, I worked
as a volunteer registering voters at the Evanston
Public Library. I spoke with library director
Neal Ney about continuing registration through
the year. He suggested a regular monthly date,
such as the second Saturday of each month. Marking
my calendar, that got me to Saturday, Sept. 11.
Having just gotten so much positive feedback
from patrons, the proverbial lightbulb went on.
A systemwide voter registration seemed like a
natural outreach effort for libraries to have
on Sept. 11.
I ran the voter registration idea past two champs
of community outreach, Frances Roehm, a librarian
at the Skokie Public Library, and Bonnie Forkosh,
community service head for the Wilmette Public
Library. Their response was “Sign us up!” Both
felt this would fit the mission of community
service for their libraries and would be embraced
by directors and staff. An advisory group was
created on the spot when both women agreed to
be involved with the project.
Designing a Project to Meet a Need
I first mentioned the idea of a systemwide voter
registration drive on Sept. 11 to NSLS public
libraries on the electronic mail list. I introduced
the project with the following objectives:
1. Honor this important date in a meaningful
2. Support participation in the democratic process.
3. Provide a service not regularly available
in communities on weekends.
4. Stimulate positive media coverage for libraries.
5. Achieve measurable outcomes for library service.
The response from NSLS librarians was immediate
and positive. About 60 percent of the respondents
said that they provided voter registration. This
number was evenly split between libraries that
provide registration as an ongoing service with
staff registrars and those that have volunteers
on site at scheduled times during the year. For
the majority, voter registration only took place
during the final week of the registration period,
which would have been in early October.
Some mystery person on the list forwarded my
e-mail message to the League of Women Voters
of Illinois (LWVIL), and a representative called
to propose a partnership for the project. The
LWVIL wanted to provide deputy registrars for
libraries that did not have staff registrars.
It also felt the partnership would be an effective
platform for addressing the serious problem of
voter apathy in the U.S. (Surprisingly, the U.S.
ranks 139 out of 172 countries in terms of turnout
Libraries from other Illinois library systems
heard about the NSLS Sept. 11 voter registration
project and asked if they could be part of it.
The 41 participating NSLS libraries were joined
by another 40 libraries from six other Illinois
Harnessing the Power of the Internet
With a 4-month window to plan and promote these
events, we needed to pull information and resources
At the end of May, I had a planning meeting
with the LWVIL, staff from six NSLS public libraries,
and a staffer from the Prairie Area Library System.
We decided that all promotion to participating
libraries and resource sharing would be handled
electronically. This would speed up delivery
time and keep implementation costs to a minimum.
The planning team began by crafting a project
title that we felt would effectively promote
the event—Honor September 11: Register
to Vote @ your library. Next we shaped an internal
promotion plan to be launched by NSLS and the
League of Women Voters within 30 days. The plan
included these segments:
E-mail list: A project-specific
e-mail list would be the main source of communication
for participating libraries. This list would
be used to announce and share available resources.
Logo: A project logo
would be created for use by all participants,
and would be available for downloading in various
formats on the project Web site.
Web site: NSLS would
create a project resource section on its Web
site that would include a suggested project timeline,
downloadable logo graphics and customizable fliers,
local promotion plans (with a press release template),
links to state and county voter registration
guidelines, and deputy registrar guidelines.
LWVIL letter: The league
would promote the project to all state chapters,
asking them to contact their local libraries
to encourage participation and to offer assistance.
It would also post information on its Web site.
According to plan, NSLS launched the complete
Sept. 11 voter registration project Web site
at the end of June. It included online registration
for new libraries that were interested in participating,
and it automatically enrolled libraries on the
project e-mail list. The only budget output was
$500 for the project logo, which was a hit with
the participating libraries.
The major early effort on the part of many participating
libraries was organizing large-scale deputy registrar
trainings. Some libraries scheduled training
sessions for their staff members and invited
other libraries in their county to send staff.
Other libraries organized trainings, often in
partnership with the League of Women Voters,
for both library staff and the community-at-large.
NSLS staff tracked deputy registrar training
sessions organized by other community organizations
and county clerk offices in the Chicago area,
and publicized trainings to libraries electronically.
All in all, approximately 250 staff and community
members completed deputy registrar training in
time for the Sept. 11 voter registration drive.
Harnessing the Power of the Press
In late July, project participants contacted
editors at each of the major newspapers in the
region to discuss the Sept. 11 project. In each
case, the editors promised to assign reporters
to cover it. What seemed to attract them was
the combination of the large number of libraries,
the recognition of 9/11, and the tie-in with
the upcoming election.
The press coverage for our voter registration
effort had long legs, starting a full month before
with articles about the extensive training
for deputy registrars going on at libraries,
and building to a semi-frenzy (in my mind) between
Sept. 7 and 11. On Sept. 7, the Chicago Tribune,
one of the nation’s largest daily newspapers,
featured our participating libraries on the “front
page” of the paper’s Web site. We
couldn’t remember the last time a major
newspaper featured a positive library
story (as opposed to those on filtering, etc.)
This highly visible Web presence generated coverage
on a number of National Public Radio affiliates
in Illinois, including Chicago. It also generated
stories on two of the largest commercial radio
stations, WBBM-AM and WGN-AM. WGN broadcast two
different pieces on the Sept. 11 project, running
from Sept. 7 to 11. Other area newspapers ran
both articles and editorials on our project for
2 weeks prior to Sept. 11.
Participating libraries actively and expertly
promoted their participation to local press,
which, along with the regional PR from NSLS,
generated media coverage beyond expectation.
Harnessing Stats to Tell Our Story
To meet our fifth goal of accomplishing measurable
outcomes, we sent an e-mail at the end of August
introducing an online survey for librarians to
fill out after Sept. 11, and reminding them
to keep a tally of people they registered on
Sept. 11. Many libraries that provide voter registration
regularly said that they had not previously kept
statistics for this service. We suggested that
this tally should be ongoing as it is valuable
information about library service to share with
the community, civic leaders, and government
One of the things we wanted to find out was
if the Sept. 11 voter drive affected a library’s
involvement with voter registration. Nearly 20
percent of the participating libraries noted
that the project resulted in an increased commitment
at their library. Some forged stronger relationships
with volunteer organizations and increased the
number of days the organizations would be on
site for registration.
Most notable were the 10 libraries that said
that, with the impetus of this project, they
added voter registration as a new service. These
libraries had a large number of staff trained
to be deputy registrars so that voter registration
could be offered to patrons all working hours.
This added to the libraries’ vision to
serve as community centers, offering a mix of
traditional and nontraditional services that
fit the specific needs of their communities.
Here are a few of the actual comments submitted
in the post-event survey:
“We usually don’t get such a large
turnout. People were even waiting in line! .
. . thanks for giving us the opportunity to do
this—it was a pleasure.”
“We established closer ties with the
League of Women Voters . . . we have never
cooperated on voter registration before. It
went smoothly and we hope the association continues.”
“This has been a terrific learning opportunity
and our staff members are very excited to
offer this new service. It has renewed the
patriotic spirit in all of us.”
Partnerships and Patriotism
The expertise and enthusiasm of library staff,
along with our partners at the League of Women
Voters, helped librarians expand service to their
community, offered new opportunities for staff,
and strengthened community partnerships. It was
a joyous melding of the power of the Internet
and the power and vision of the library community.
How many people voted in the 2000 general
(the estimated percentage of the voting-age
population that actually voted)
Whole U.S.: 49.3%
Hoffman has been the marketing communications
specialist at the North Suburban Library System
in Wheeling, Ill., for 7 years. She holds a
B.A. in speech communications from the University
of Illinois. She thinks there are a variety
of ways to serve your country, and she chooses
to do so by serving as an election judge and
voter services chair for her local League of
Women Voters chapter. Her e-mail address is